Reading Time: 5 minutes

Pentagon officials, under pressure to investigate alleged links between elite U.S. military trainers and Colombian forces implicated in a 1997 civilian massacre, have confirmed that they trained soldiers commanded by the officer accused of masterminding the attack.

With a $1.6 billion counternarcotics aid package for Colombia making its way through the U.S. Congress, there is increased scrutiny over whether U.S. military assistance has been or could be turned against Colombian civilians in that country’s decades-long civil war.

In November 1997, Congress enacted the “Leahy amendment,” prohibiting assistance to any foreign military unit if there is “credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights.”

Four months earlier, 49 residents of Mapiripán, a village in the coca-growing region of southeastern Colombia, were killed over a five-day period by suspected paramilitary forces allegedly operating under the direction of Colombian Army Col. Lino Sánchez and Carlos Castaño, leader of Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary forces. Colombian prosecutors have formally accused Sánchez and Castaño of being the “intellectual authors” of the massacre.

Sánchez and two other Colombian army officers are in prison, awaiting trial on charges in connection with the massacre. Castaño, Colombia’s most notorious rightist paramilitary leader accused of numerous civilian atrocities and drug trafficking, remains at large.

A Pentagon official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, confirmed that Sánchez was commander of the 2nd Mobile Brigade, which received training by U.S. Special Forces at a river base about 80 kilometers from Mapiripán. The Defense Department has said it is investigating further to determine whether Sánchez himself was trained by U.S. Special Forces.

The Bogotá daily El Espectador reported on Feb. 27 that Sánchez’s 2nd Mobile Brigade received U.S. Special Forces training in June 1997 while he was planning the Mapiripán massacre. The newspaper said the goal of the attack was to turn over control of the guerrilla-held Mapiripán, in a region that produces about 30 percent of the worlds coca, to paramilitary forces, which have ties to the Colombian army.

A report by Colombia’s Counternarcotics Police Intelligence Office, cited by the newspaper, said Sánchez first engineered a plan on June 21 to introduce paramilitary forces into the region, using U.S. spraying of coca crops as a cover, in order to “teach the guerrillas a lesson.”

The El Espectador investigation was based on a review of 4,500 pages of Colombian government documents on the Mapiripán massacre by reporter Ignacio Gómez, who is also a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. It has prompted inquiries on Capitol Hill, where Congress is debating an aid package that would train and equip Colombian army counternarcotics battalions and provide money for more than 60 helicopters for army and police forces.

Human rights groups are worried that the military aid might be used against Colombian civilians. Robert E. White, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay and president of the Center for International Policy, warned in a Feb. 8 commentary in The Washington Post that the aid package “puts us in league with a Colombian military that has longstanding ties to the drug-dealing, barbaric paramilitaries that commit more than 75 percent of the human rights violations” in Colombia.

“Obviously our people do not teach torture. They do not teach massacres. They teach human rights in every single class,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations Brian Sheridan told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations two days after the El Espectador report. “As to the massacre, or alleged massacre and its proximity to or juxtapositioning to the training activity, that is something that we will have to look at very carefully.”

In a Dec. 22, 1999, letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a member of the Senates Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and author of the Leahy amendment, Sheridan listed nine training exercises between U.S. and Colombian soldiers between June and August 1997. Specifically, he said, U.S. soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., trained Colombian troops at the Barrancón river base from May 14 to June 23, 1997. Barrancón, an island in the Guaviare River, is a U.S. Special Forces training site that is a 10-minute drive from a Colombian army base and airfield at San José del Guaviare, from which U.S. government and contract personnel conduct counternarcotics operations. According to El Espectador, the paramilitaries were allowed to land at that airbase in mid-July en route to Mapiripán.

Sheridan said the “Green Berets” finished their training of Colombian troops at “the Barrancón Special Forces School” on June 23, 1997. Pentagon officials say they do not know whether Sánchez’s 2nd Mobile Brigade participated in that training, and Clyde Howard, an official in Sheridan’s office, said the Pentagon was under no obligation to investigate because the Leahy amendment was not law at the time of the massacre.

Sheridan confirmed that Sánchez’s 2nd Mobile Brigade received “riverine interdiction and land warfare” training one month after the massacre from Aug. 18 to Sept. 18, 1997.

U.S. Special Forces from Fort Bragg were in Colombia from May 22 to July 22, 1997, according to a 1998 Defense Department report. But Sheridan’s office said only the two exercises specified in the Leahy letter involved training at Barrancón.

“There are discrepancies about what our military trainers were doing at Barrancón, and whether they were there at the time of the Mapiripán massacre nearby. These discrepancies need to be clarified,” Leahy said in a statement to Gómez.

Documents reviewed by El Espectador indicate that American military personnel were at Barrancón for a graduation ceremony for U.S.-trained Colombian forces on July 20-22, 1997. A prosecutor from Colombia’s Attorney Generals office, who investigated the Mapiripán massacre two days after it ended, was denied a helicopter to reach the village on July 22 because it was being used to transport military personnel based at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, the documents show.

U.S. officials have acknowledged seeing unusual military activity in and around the San José airfield near Barrancón before the massacre. Barbara Larkin, the State Department’s assistant secretary for legislative affairs, said in a March 30, 1998, letter to Leahy that Colombian army troops from the 2nd Mobile Brigade and the 7th Brigade were present in the area at the time. The State Department told Leahy “that U.S. personnel involved in counternarcotics programs at San Jose [del Guaviare] remember seeing an unusual number of Army personnel at the airport on the day in question.”

The investigation by the Colombian federal prosecutors office showed that on July 12, two civilian airplanes, an Antonov and a DC-3, landed at the San José del Guaviare airfield near Barrancón, where Sánchez had an office, El Espectador reported. The planes carried 15 paramilitary operatives loyal to Castaño, armed with machetes and knives, several tons of supplies, and leaflets addressed “To the People of the Guaviare,” warning them to cease their cooperation with the guerrillas.

The Castaño paramilitaries were joined by others, and the force totaled about 100 men by the time it reached Mapiripán, about a two-hour drive to the northeast. El Espectador, citing the prosecutors report, said two paramilitary soldiers also crossed the Guaviare River in stolen boats past a Colombian marine infantry base checkpoint attached to the Barrancón facility. U.S. Navy Seabees built the marine base in 1994, and the U.S. Navy continues to train Colombian forces there. The boats then met up with the rest of the paramilitary force across the river from Mapiripán. At no time did Colombian civilian or military authorities challenge the paramilitary forces, the newspaper said, even though such groups are illegal in Colombia.

At dawn on July 15, 1997, the paramilitary forces surrounded Mapiripán, and their siege of terror and torture lasted until July 20, when the International Committee of the Red Cross dispatched a plane to the village. Today, Mapiripán is a virtual ghost town.

ICIJ researcher Rupa Patel contributed to this report.

Your support is crucial!

Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.